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PROMS 2002

PROM 54: Debussy, Bartok, Prokofiev, Yefim Bronfman (pf), Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Royal Albert Hall, 30th August 2002 (AR)

Debussy Ibéria
Bartók Piano Concerto No. 1
Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet - excerpts

The Los Angeles Philharmonic's promenade concert under its music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, like the proverbial curate's egg, was  bad in parts.
Salonen's account of Debussy's Iberia was highly polished yet curiously, clinically sterile - surely not what the composer intended. The orchestral textures were smoothed out, having the silky characteristics of a Guilini interpretation.  The second movement was scentless and passionless, and as I scanned the audience they seemed bored.  The castanets seemed curiously mechanical, while the woodwind were woolly and dull. The strings were suave but lacked attack; Salonen seemed as detached from this score as the orchestra - it just never took off.  Listening to Toscanini's 1938 paradigmatic account of Iberia with the NBC Symphony Orchestra illustrates perfectly where Salonen went wrong.

Things improved a lot with the Bartok’s First Piano Concerto, with soloist Yefim Bronfman. At last the LAPO got intense.  The work opened with a well-judged dialogue between pianist and timpanist; indeed, the pianist produced a percussive tone which blended well with the percussion section.  The hushed Andante produced subterranean sounds from Bronfman more like Schubert than Bartok, and the four percussionists who echoed each other's tapping sounds were only occasionally drowned out by the usual coterie of coughers. From there on the piece gathered momentum, progressing helter-skelter to the climactic and triumphant final thud from the entire orchestra. For an encore, Bronfman played part of Scarlatti's D-major sonata, a curious but delightful choice.

Salonen chose movements from all three of the composer's suites for the Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet excerpts, and this proved to be the most inspired part of the announced programme. The orchestra was at its most expressive and sonorous. The strings were particularly expressive, producing a whole gamut of sounds evoking sensations sometimes sweet, sometimes sour, sometimes sharp. The brass section, especially the trombones, really shone in the ‘Montagues and Capulets’ section, combining warmth of tone with necessary bite; by contrast, the woodwind were weak, lacking focus and immediacy.  Notably intense was ‘Tybalt's Death’, which Salonen paced with perfect timing, resisting the temptation to milk the drama in the way that Celibidache did in his notorious slow-motion renditions.  

By way of an encore, the concert ended with the’ Apotheose: Le Jardin feerique’ from Ravel's Mother Goose Suite, which was ironically the best played and conducted piece of the entire evening.   Salonen pushed the orchestra to new heights, perfectly judging the build up from the opening solemn strings to the full orchestral climax, producing on the way a sparkling aura of sensations. This was one of the most vivacious and magical accounts I have heard of this movement, and it is a pity Salonen didn't choose to conduct the entire suite as part of the programme.

Alex Russell

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